The War on COVID Has Become a Quagmire. Americans Need an Exit Strategy.

Like the war on drugs and the war on terror before it, the war on COVID is a futile, deeply destructive campaign, and Americans want out.


What if we not only lost the war on COVID, but it was never really winnable? That's increasingly what voters seem to believe—and for good reason, as a recent study suggests the limits of policymakers to control the virus through behavioral regulations. 

In her Codebook newsletter, pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson looks at the abrupt retreat from COVID restrictions by Democratic governors and mayors, and tries to identify the source of the shift. 

In blue states like New Jersey and California, as well as liberal cities like Washington, D.C., elected officials have rolled back various pandemic policies over the last few weeks, leading to accusations of cynical political motives—that, as GOP Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) quipped, "the science hasn't changed, the polling has." 

It seems fairly obvious that Democrats can sense a change in the political winds as case counts plummet across the country, and they are acting accordingly. As Josh Barro recently wrote in his newsletter, Democratic governors are "running to where the COVID ball is going." 

But after surveying the polls, Anderson suggests there's something deeper going on, that it's not so much that there's been an abrupt change in whether voters, especially blue state voters, favor COVID restrictions, but instead that many of those voters have simply given up on the idea that COVID can ever be defeated. As Anderson puts it: "The turn away from COVID restrictions seems less about them having become deeply unpopular overnight, but rather that public opinion has soured on our ability to win the fight against COVID at all." Two years in, the war on COVID increasingly feels like a quagmire, and voters are looking for an exit plan. 

I use the phrase war on COVID on purpose, for there are clear echoes of both the war on drugs and the war on terror: long-running government campaigns championed by the political class and predicated on preserving public health and safety, which eventually proved futile at best, and deeply destructive and counterproductive at worst. Both involved a mix of largely symbolic acts, intended mostly to visibly demonstrate that something was being donem and more punitive initiatives that produced damaging effects that tended to fall heaviest on out groups with little political influence.

Those campaigns became permanent parts of the American political landscape in part because they offered ambitious bureaucrats and politicians paths to consolidate power, and in part because of the uneven distribution of their consequences. The first is obviously true for many COVID hawks, especially for public health authorities. But while the negative effects of COVID restrictions have certainly hit some groups harder than others (children, and children with learning disabilities in particular), the overall impact has been more widespread: Over the past two years, almost everyone in America has, at the very least, been inconvenienced or frustrated, if not worse, and for many, those inconveniences and frustrations have become fixtures of daily life. 

Those inconveniences were a price that many Americans were willing to pay, especially at first. Early on, polls found support for staying at home, social distancing, masking, and even closures, especially in more left-leaning locales. But it now seems it was a price they were willing to pay only if those irritations produced demonstrable results. 

And those results have not been forthcoming. Indeed, you can see the failure of COVID restrictions in a recent meta-analysis led by a John Hopkins University economist which reviewed 34 papers on the mortality effects of pandemic policy restrictions and found that non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)—basically, mandatory behavioral controls, which include anything from masking to forced quarantines and business closures—had very little effect on COVID deaths.

The working paper does have some limitations: In particular, the most recent paper was published in June 2021, which means it doesn't tell us much about COVID policy during the Delta or Omicron waves.

It also excludes most epidemiological research, since it relies on studies that track what has already happened rather than on studies exploring what might have happened using epidemiological models as counterfactuals. Essentially, it focuses on studies that use observational research rather than on studies comparing reality to public health simulations. Notably, this year's Nobel Prize in Economics went to a group of economists who pioneered that sort of observation-based study methodology; it's quite useful for, among other things, studying the effects of policy changes.

So this analysis isn't the final word on pandemic restrictions. But what it suggests is that it's quite difficult to find large observable effects on mortality from behavior-based COVID policies. 

What I suspect is driving discontent with the war on COVID, however, is that you don't need a meta-study to observe the futility of those restrictions. Two years into the pandemic, Americans have seen schools closed and reopened (and sometimes closed again), thousands of businesses shut down and return (sometimes in altered form), masking denigrated as useless then held up as essential, and mask mandates turned on and off and sometimes on again. It's simply not obvious to many people that any of it worked very well to control the virus, or, if it did work somewhat, that it was worth the trade-offs. Masking rules, in particular, are self-evidently arbitrary and absurd, as anyone who has had to mask between a hostess stand and a table, or sat maskless at an airport bar surrounded by masked travelers, can see. Yet President Joe Biden continues to side with the interventionists, saying just this week that ending mask mandates now would be "premature."

The irritations and frustrations, meanwhile, are clear and persistent, even as COVID waves continue to swell and crash. And so what voters, even in COVID-cautious blue states, increasingly seem to have concluded is that whatever it is we're doing isn't working—so why are we doing it? 

The only thing that does seem obvious in this pandemic morass is that vaccines continue to be effective at preventing severe disease and death if you do catch COVID, which probably explains why most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, have gotten the jab. This may or may not represent victory, in the sense that the virus is still with us, and the disease's death toll over the last two years is still staggeringly high. But it is an exit strategy from yet another failed government campaign—and right now, that's what Americans appear to both want and need.